Why Greenwasher knows best about fast food labelling, and more advertising that you couldn’t make up

Ahead of the game, again …

Four years ago, Greenwasher sat in a room in Brussels with other stakeholders and talked to a major fast food company about obesity, customers, ethics and marketing.

Towards the end of the discussion, in which sat some very senior executives, we made the suggestion: put calorie content on your menus.

The rationale was twofold. First, transparency. People have a right to know what they are eating. Second, there is always a lot of misinformation out there about what is in food, and how many calories there are in, say, a hamburger or a chicken nugget.

Just give people the information, we said. They are in your premises anyway; they are hungry and they know it’s not gourmet food. What do you have to lose? Except an opportunity to lead and experiment.

The company executives looked bemused by our suggestion. “Nutritional information is on the other side of the piece of paper on the tray that you put your food on,” they said. They didn’t take up our advice.

Years later, fast food is doing quite well in the recession, but the obesity headlines are still coming. And now this headline, all over the UK media: “Menus to display calorie counts.” This is a voluntary initiative set up by a government agency.

Finally it’s happening. More information on what we eat. Better information. It’s a shame that this didn’t come from a company taking the lead, and others copying.

A big company could have kicked it off and started a really serious debate, by going it alone, or working with others. Where were the industry associations here? Nowhere of course, as usual.

This voluntary plan came from the Food Standards Agency, which found that, unsurprisingly, 85% of consumers are “in favour of catering outlets displaying nutritional data”. No, really?

This is obvious. Yet no fast food company seemed prepared to lead. A lost chance to use brand, resources and reach to highlight an important issue, and build trust.

Two tales of Coke and ethics

Coke’s been in the news again. For good and ill.

First, the company was censured by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), which took a pop at the world’s biggest brand for “misleading” advertising.

In brief, last year Coke issued a “Motherhood & Myth-Busting” advertising campaign, which featured Aussie actor Kerry Armstrong. The ads purported to tackle “myths” about Coke contributing to obesity, teeth rot and overly caffeinated children.

The ACCC said it was “immediately concerned about the misleading messages” and pushed Coke to publish corrective advertisements across most of Australia’s newspapers. Coke said the whole thing was unintentional.

The brand appears to be somewhat in denial about the incident, saying: “This process has reinforced in our minds that even where advertising messages are well intentioned, it is important to consider the overall impression that the messages may convey.”

Meanwhile Coke has taken a long-mooted stake in eco- and health-friendly smoothie maker Innocent Drinks. Coke’s stake in the business is reported to be somewhere between 10% and 20% and cost £30m.

These two stories about Coke sum up the contradictions inherent in big companies in modern times. Big established firms with businesses rooted in the pre-sustainability era want to defend the “old practices” (flogging drinks bad for health in this case), while getting into the “new” areas of more sustainable products, such as smoothies.

The transition from increasingly perceived “bad” products to “better” ones is inevitably going to have some big bumps in the road, as Coke is finding out.

Their Australian ads do seem unbelievably crass. You would have thought Coke had been beaten up enough times by campaigners to be smarter than that.

Lights into flights

Most greenwash is more cock-up than conspiracy. While campaigners would sometimes appear to have us believe that greenwash is a cynical corporate plot, most of it is just badly thought-through marketing, like Tesco’s recent “turn lights into flights” ad.

Bloggers have slated the supermarket for the ad. The idea was a simple customer marketing campaign. The small print offers 60 airmiles for each £2.50 clubcard voucher redeemed by customers. The tagline for the ad, however, with an image of a low-energy lightbulb, evoking the notion of an environmental initiative, was deeply unfortunate, to say the least.

Greenwasher has been told by well-placed sources for months that Tesco really does get it on climate change, and is leading other UK supermarkets in all sorts of ways.

It would be nice, however, if Tesco vetted its ads better. Might help stop Guardian readers pounding them on the newspaper’s blog, too.

Got a story for Greenwasher? Send it to greenwasher@ethicalcorp.com

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